What's Causing Justin Verlander's Fall from Ace Power Pitcher to Ordinary?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 12, 2014

USA Today

Suddenly, Justin Verlander is turning into Barry Zito.

No, he hasn't begun throwing left-handed or (to my knowledge) playing the guitar. If only, as that would be preferable to how Verlander is actually taking after Zito.

We remember Zito as a Cy Young pitcher who got a big contract and ceased being able to dominate hitters. And right now, that's Verlander.

The Detroit Tigers' former Cy Young and MVP winner took the mound against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field on Wednesday evening, and it didn't go well. Verlander did strike out six in five and two-thirds innings, but he also gave up seven earned runs on eight hits and four walks. 

That was all the offense the White Sox needed en route to an 8-2 win.

This, unfortunately, is becoming a trend. Here's a slightly NSFW chart of Verlander's last six outings, via ESPN.com:

Justin Verlander Since May 14
5/14@ BAL6.0556134
5/20@ CLE6.05511032
5/25vs. TEX5.19611131
5/30@ SEA7.2335117
6/5vs. TOR7.0658244
6/11@ CHW5.2778146
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For those scoring at home, that's a 7.50 ERA. To make things even more depressing, here's ESPN Stats & Info:

For a guy who's just a year removed from signing a seven-year, $180 million extension, this is not a good look. It's a horrible look, in fact, and it makes one hungry for answers.

Just what the heck is going on with Verlander?

Heck, I can go to FanGraphs and tell you that his strikeouts are down, his walks are up and he's allowing more contact. Those are three good ways for a dominant pitcher to become less dominant.

But if we're going to get more specific, we better start with the clue found in this video of Jose Abreu's dinger off Verlander:

Pictured here is Abreu taking a 92 mph fastball that was probably going to be a ball and drilling it out to left-center field. While credit is owed to Abreu for clobbering it, our focus will now turn to how this was anything but a vintage Verlander fastball.

The velocity obviously wasn't vintage, as a vintage Verlander heater is 95 and up. That's something he can still do, but it's something he hasn't been doing as much in 2014.

FanGraphs had Verlander's average 2014 heater at 92.4 miles per hour entering Wednesday's action. Even worse, a search on BaseballSavant.com reveals that just 5.8 percent of his heaters have been faster than 95. That's the bottom of a downward decline, preceded by stops at 13.8 percent in 2013 and 21.1 percent in 2012.

So yeah, best not to take Verlander's word for it in this remark to George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press:

To be fair, maybe it feels that way. But according to the numbers, it's not that way.

It's not just velocity that Verlander has lost, though. As demonstrated by the heater that Abreu crushed, his fastball command hasn't been the same, either:

Justin Verlander's Fastball Command
Year% of Fastballs in Strike Zone

Fewer of Verlander's fastballs are finding the zone than has ever been recorded, and it looks especially bad that he's hitting the zone with his fastball about half as often as he did in 2013. 

This helps explain why his first-pitch strike percentage is down from 65.0 in 2013 to 58.3 this year. That, in turn, helps explain why Verlander's walk rate has risen from 3.09 last year to 3.83 this year.

And if we combine both the lack of velocity and the lack of command, it's easier to understand why Verlander's fastball just isn't getting the job done.

Here's some telling data from Brooks Baseball:

Justin Verlander's Fastball Effectiveness
Brooks Baseball

It's those first four columns that stand out, as they show that Verlander's diminished heater has been getting fewer swings, whiffs, fouls and, not surprisingly, strikeouts. 

That's the key, really. While those average and slugging figures don't look so bad, Verlander's inability to put hitters away with his fastball means he needs his secondary pitches to do the job.

And they're not.

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 11:  Starting pitcher Justin Verlander #35 of the Detroit Tigers stands on the field during the sixth inning against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field June 11, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.      (Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Imag
Brian Kersey/Getty Images

We can put it this way:

  • Opponents versus Verlander's changeup, slider and curveball from 2007 to 2013: .229 average and .346 slugging.
  • Opponents versus Verlander's changeup, slider and curveball in 2014: .266 average and .402 slugging.

Verlander's secondaries were quite good at limiting hits and extra-base hits. Now they're less so.

There are probably many explanations for this, but here's the simplest: Verlander is putting a lot more of these pitches in the strike zone.

According to BaseballSavant.com, Verlander didn't throw any more than 16.7 percent of his secondaries in the strike zone between 2008 and 2013. But in 2014, he's thrown 23.6 percent of his secondaries in the strike zone.

Presumably, that's partially Verlander trying to make up for his lack of fastball command, and partially him making up for the fact that his chase rate (per FanGraphs) is the lowest it's been since 2008. He needs to get strikes somehow, you know.

Whatever the case, it's not working:

Opponents vs. Verlander's Secondaries in Strike Zone

After four excellent years, the performance against Verlander's secondaries in the strike zone has gone back to 2008-2009 levels. And hey, at least he still had a killer fastball in those days.

There are probably a million more numbers we can discuss, but the ones we've looked at have given us a good enough glimpse at the truth: The Verlander of 2014 is not the Verlander we know and love. That's owed largely to his diminished-in-more-ways-than-one fastball, but his other stuff hasn't helped either.

His situation isn't entirely without hope. Eno Sarris noted in an ESPN Insider piece (subscription required) last September that Verlander made a mechanical tweak that gave him some extra velocity. Not so coincidentally, said tweak also kicked off a hot streak that lasted into October.

Maybe there's another tweak like that waiting to be made. And even if more velocity isn't the result, improved fastball command would be good enough.

At the same time, we shouldn't kid ourselves into thinking that Verlander's best days aren't behind him.

Given his struggles last year and his considerably worse struggles this year, we have plenty of reasons to believe that Verlander is in the middle of a decline rather than in the middle of a rough patch. I don't doubt that we'll see him be good in spurts again, but sustained dominance is asking a lot.

Oh, and one more thing before we go.

You know that extension Verlander signed last year? It technically hasn't even started yet.

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